The Curmudgeon


Saturday, March 27, 2004

Planetary Survey No. 2: Driven to Extremes

The Frinths can think of nothing but personal transportation. This racial obsession arose very early in their history, for the earliest stage of Frinth evolution came about when a species of prehistoric amoeba, swimming in the primal seas of the planet Revornitsua, began gradually to increase the size of its nucleus at the expense of its pseudopodia. Thus, from the very birth of life on that world, intelligence was forced to grow out of the ashes of natural manoeuvrability.

Consequently, artificial modes of transport became an issue of vital importance long before the proto-Frinths had even left the ancestral oceans; proof of this is freely available in any handful of grit from a Revornitsuan beach. Simply inspect a few grains from such a handful under the microscope, and you will find that at least half of them are in fact tiny fossilised wheels, exquisitely if primitively tooled and shaped to propel tiny palaeoprotozoan pushbikes along the ocean floor.

By means of such cunning devices, the proto-Frinths were able to escape and outwit their predators, and survived to evolve into the icthyofrinths which, when the seas retreated, had to pedal their aquamobiles ashore to start an uncertain new existence on the dry land. There then followed the Age of Frinthosaurs, during which modes of personal transport became ever larger and more cumbersome, culminating finally in the forty-one-metre, triple-decker brontobus, which had seventeen wheels and required an entire maintenance crew at each end just to keep it under control. Inevitably the Frinthosaurs died out, and this was the dawn of the modern age.

The early modern Frinths were simple hunter-gatherers, who rode about on rather crudely-adapted versions of the early aquamobiles. Society consisted of nomadic tribes of perhaps twenty Frinths apiece, scavenging for life’s necessities – food, water, spare handlebars – wherever they could be found. The turning point came a hundred thousand years ago, with the domestication of the internal combustion engine. Several different species of this noisy but fast-moving animal had been roaming the planet’s plains for some time past; the Frinths learned to follow the herds, then later to preserve the young of slaughtered females and rear them in captivity for their own use; and then, later still, to train them to sit in specially-designed compartments on Frinth vehicles and lend the sweat of their pistons to the sacred goal of speed. When it was discovered that, through selective breeding, one could obtain an engine with the well-developed fuel pump of the hardy northern type, together with the smooth flowing action and gently purring hum of the southern, and more cylinders than either, the Frinths were well on the way towards true civilisation.

Present-day Revornitsua is a planet in gridlock, which is to say a perpetual traffic jam in which every single Frinth is prevented from moving so much as an inch because of all the other Frinths blocking his every path. This problem first occurred about a century ago, when the city of Srotom-Lareneg, capital of Drof, was jammed completely for the space of three Revornitsuan days, with not a single vehicle able to move into, out of, or around inside it. At that time, however, the matter could be resolved quite easily, by airlifting out a number of Frinths at points where the blockage was worst and then, when things were moving once more, by building more roads to relieve the general congestion. Although citylocks of various sizes did in fact continue to occur (most notoriously in Adnohatoyot, where the entire population of this urbanised continent was stuck for nearly two weeks, with hardly an inch to spare across the whole land mass), the Frinths always dealt with them in the same way: in the first instance by deploying a task force of helicopters at strategic spots, and in the longer term by building more roads. Such radical solutions as periodic culling of internal combustion engines, in conjunction with research into hitherto unexplored natural sources of mobility, have been proposed but not seriously considered; it is feared that these would entail a limitation of the individual Frinth’s sacred and inalienable right to a choice of personal transportation.

Accordingly, the roads have now, by degrees, taken over the entire planetary surface, and tunnels have been bored to accommodate their further spread below both ground and sea. Some of the motorways are set above ground level, though work on these was halted recently when Frinths began to float off into space owing to the reduced gravity in the reaches of the upper atmospheric highways, tier upon tier of which now ring the planet to a height just below where the ozone layer used to be, making the planet look, to the orbiting observer, rather like a sort of spherical helter-skelter. All shops, restaurants, factories, hospitals, homes and buildings of every other sort have been demolished to make way for the roads; vehicles are now built for self-sufficiency in such items as food, sleeping-space, and provisions for a variety of emergencies up to and including (in the more expensive models) the delivery and incubation of quintuplets. The most common type of vehicle nowadays is a kind of motorised caravan with extensive cupboard-space for dehydrated meals, and a lavatory cubicle whose water-tank incorporates a miniature recycling plant powered by the engine.

Meanwhile the individual Frinth, in exercising his sacred right to choose his very own personal transport, must ensure, if he wishes to live very long, that the transporter of his choice is fully adapted to the gravitational pressures of the ocean floor and below, as well as to the near-weightlessness of the stratobahns; the engine must be of the very latest type, fully functional under all conditions, as breakdowns en route can cause jams of incredible dimensions, and the penalties are correspondingly severe. Unfortunately, the only breed of engine presently available which is capable of delivering an acceptable standard in all Revornitsua’s dramatically varied climates is the so-called Belching Noxicon, Mark XXVIII, which at maximum efficiency produces, for every gallon of petrol consumed, ninety per cent pollutive gases and ten per cent forward velocity. As, thanks to the gridlock, forward velocity is now impossible, a debate is raging to this day in the Frinth parliament as to whether people should be ordered to turn off their idling engines, or whether such an order would constitute a violation of the rights of those few not already dead of suffocation.

Certain marginal voices are saying (albeit faintly and between coughs) that the Frinth parliament has allowed itself to become sidetracked from the main issue which, they claim, is not that of individual rights but that of collective survival. There are no more helicopters, as the airfields have been turned into roads; if there were helicopters they could never take off, as the air is full of roads; if the air were free there would be nowhere to take the airlifted vehicles, as every conceivable place is packed with cars already. Whether engines are turned off or left on, the dissenters are saying, it can only be a matter of time before supplies in the jammed vehicles begin to run low, at which point all Frinths will have to make some difficult decisions as to what they will do next. In some obscure and deeply disreputable quarters, it has even been rumoured (maliciously no doubt) that the day may fast be approaching when the race will finally be obliged to learn, after two hundred and fifty-three million years of automotive evolution, to walk.